What is it about the Prohibition Era that makes it such rich fodder for popular culture? The Volstead Act’s powers banned alcohol in the US between 1920 and 1933, allowing organised crime to take hold across the country. From The Public Enemy through to TV’s Boardwalk Empire, the genre appeals for the same reason Westerns endure: it’s a period in the country’s history filled with outlaws and anything was possible. It is the story of America.
LIVE BY NIGHT, written, directed and starring Ben Affleck, is a gangster epic that follows in this grand tradition. In the 1920s, Joe Coughlin (Affleck), the son of a Boston Irish police captain (Brendan Gleeson), is working his way up the ranks of gangster Albert White’s (Robert Glenister) criminal empire. However, he comes undone when his affair with White’s mistress (Sienna Miller) is uncovered. Coughlin’s fortune changes when he creates his own empire in Florida under a rival mobster, finding a new love interest in Graciela Corrales (Zoe Saldana).
It’s been a while since a gangster film has had this much scale and scope. While Affleck’s exploration of the era is not quite The Godfather or Once Upon in America – or even a forerunner to the Cuban flavoured Scarface– it’s an ambitious film that turns rum running into a war. At the heart of the film, we have a character who is in constant conflict with the life that he is leading, consistently flinching at the increasing darkness of his lot.
It’s also a tale of revenge and love, a pair of primal pursuits that provide a familiar universality to their saga. What sets the film apart is a keen sense of politics, with the KKK cast as one of the central antagonists, a shocking reminder of how entrenched white supremacy was (and is) in the building of America. It’s not exactly even-handed, with the chief representative of the Klan being a slow-witted hick. However, the group remains a sinister presence due to their presence at every level of power, a grim parallel to modern politics.
Set in the historic Tampa neighbourhood of Ybor City, or the “Harlem of Tampa” as the film calls it, veteran cinematographer Robert Richardson (JFK, Casino, The Hateful Eight) fills the screen with crisp photography of the lush backgrounds. Whether it is burning car in Boston or a coastal sunset, there’s always movement, even in the still of night. The cast is impeccable, with straight-edge sheriff played with grim determination by Chris Cooper. As the saga of his daughter Loretta (Elle Fanning) unfolds, from would-be starlet to born-again evangelist, his internal anguish is tangible.
If anything, LIVE BY NIGHT overstays its welcome by 20 minutes or so, with an extended coda that leaves us with palpable melancholy. Yet its preceded by a climactic confrontation that might rank up there with some of the best, so you have to take the good with the bad. While it might not be as strong as Affleck’s thematically similar The Town, or the award-winning Argo, it still demonstrates his mastery of the medium and gives us plenty to look forward to for his take on The Batman.